Rohingya in Chicago

For decades Myanmar’s Rakhine State has been rife with internal conflict.  Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced from their homes and continued to live in internal displacement camps. Among the most affected have been an ethnic group of Muslims, who refer to themselves as Rohingya, who have faced longstanding and systematic oppression and persecution. 

In Myanmar, the vast majority of Rohingya are denied citizenship.  Basic services like education and public health services are frequently unavailable to Rohingya communities.  They are viewed locally as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and thus, have few economic opportunities while facing frequent exclusion from social, economic, and governance processes. Rohingya have fled Myanmar, often in the face of government-led income seizures, forced labor and violence.  For decades, but particularly in the last few months as violence returned to the northern part of the state, there have been allegations of entire villages burned to the ground, group killings and rape.  In desperation, Rohingya have boarded small fishing boats to other parts of southeast Asia, braved the river crossing to Bangladesh and/or travelled through the mountains to seek asylum.  Many have died in the process.   Those that survive are often arrested and detained in the very countries in which they sought refuge.  For years, they sit and wait.

After intensive screening and a labored process, a few Rohingya have been invited to the United States.  An even smaller handful have made it to Chicago.  Today, Chicago is home to over 300 Rohingya refugees, most living in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood around Devon Street.  Here, they can practice their religion freely and enjoy basic public services.  They are free, but that freedom is accompanied by the guilt of knowing their fellow Rohingya in Myanmar are not.  The oppression and persecution of their people continues.

Rohingya in Chicago tells the stories of Rohingya refugees’ journeys in pursuit of human rights and a better life.

 Laila Begum, 28, sits in her new apartment in Chicago.  In 2013, she fled her village in the middle of the night, boarding a small fishing boat on the river, as word of an imminent government-led attack spread.  She left behind her parents.  Her father would not survive. 

Laila Begum, 28, sits in her new apartment in Chicago.  In 2013, she fled her village in the middle of the night, boarding a small fishing boat on the river, as word of an imminent government-led attack spread.  She left behind her parents.  Her father would not survive. 

 Laila washes up in her new home.

Laila washes up in her new home.

 Laila lives with her husband and sister in an apartment in Rogers Park.  Most Rohingya refugees are placed near Devon Street, where they are among many people who share their religious beliefs.

Laila lives with her husband and sister in an apartment in Rogers Park.  Most Rohingya refugees are placed near Devon Street, where they are among many people who share their religious beliefs.

 Laila sets up a space heater in her new living room.  She has never experienced a winter before. "There was no one listening in Burma," said Laila in an interview before the Rohingya crises escalated into, what the many have called, a genocide.

Laila sets up a space heater in her new living room.  She has never experienced a winter before. "There was no one listening in Burma," said Laila in an interview before the Rohingya crises escalated into, what the many have called, a genocide.

 Mohammed, 74 years old, left Myanmar in 1974.  Along with approximately 15 other Rohingya, he travelled through the mountains, avoiding ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military.  Once they reached Thailand, the group split up.  He continued to Malaysia, where, with a few other refugees, he rented an apartment under the radar to avoid being restricted to refugee camps.  

Mohammed, 74 years old, left Myanmar in 1974.  Along with approximately 15 other Rohingya, he travelled through the mountains, avoiding ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military.  Once they reached Thailand, the group split up.  He continued to Malaysia, where, with a few other refugees, he rented an apartment under the radar to avoid being restricted to refugee camps.  

 Mohammed cleans up for evening prayer.  He arrived Chicago in 2014.  In Chicago, he feels a strengthened sense of community with his fellow Rohingya and Muslim neighbors.  “I didn’t have this opportunity in Burma.”  

Mohammed cleans up for evening prayer.  He arrived Chicago in 2014.  In Chicago, he feels a strengthened sense of community with his fellow Rohingya and Muslim neighbors.  “I didn’t have this opportunity in Burma.”  

 Mohammed pays in his living room.  Since the United States offered him citizenship, he views the US as his country.  “When I pray, it’s to protect the US government – for peace here and unity.  This is the most at-home I’ve felt.”  

Mohammed pays in his living room.  Since the United States offered him citizenship, he views the US as his country.  “When I pray, it’s to protect the US government – for peace here and unity.  This is the most at-home I’ve felt.”  

 Mohammed lives off Devon Street, a popular Muslim neighborhood in Chicago, with his nephew and nephew's friend.  This is the first home in over 30 years where he hasn't feared deportation.  Though he had asylum in Malaysia, it was't uncommon for refugees to be deported regardless.  However, in Chicago, he isn't without worry.  He rarely ventures beyond Devon Street and opts to pray at home in the evenings, his fear of violence on the bustling streets keeping him anchored where he is comfortable. 

Mohammed lives off Devon Street, a popular Muslim neighborhood in Chicago, with his nephew and nephew's friend.  This is the first home in over 30 years where he hasn't feared deportation.  Though he had asylum in Malaysia, it was't uncommon for refugees to be deported regardless.  However, in Chicago, he isn't without worry.  He rarely ventures beyond Devon Street and opts to pray at home in the evenings, his fear of violence on the bustling streets keeping him anchored where he is comfortable. 

 Mohammed Sultan, a three-year-old Rohingya boy, clings to his mother in a neighbor's home.  Mohammed was born in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. 

Mohammed Sultan, a three-year-old Rohingya boy, clings to his mother in a neighbor's home.  Mohammed was born in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. 

 Abdris Younus left the village of Shwe Prasaw in Myanmar's Rhakine State in 2011, leaving behind his first wife, Lailah, and nine kids.  "Lailah was crying but said, 'If you’re here, they will always give us trouble.  There is no choice.'    Abdris joined around 100 people on a small boat bound for Malaysia. The engine died partway into the journey and for days, they drifted along. There was minimal food to begin with let alone for a delayed journey.  10-15 people on the boat died while they were drifting.  Abdris remembers throwing bodies overboard to give the survivors room.  One day, they spotted a small fishing boat nearby.  Out of desperation, people began jumping overboard and swimming for the boat.  The fishermen alerted the Sri Lankan government, which sent a vessel with food, clothes and medicine, and brought the refugees to detainment camps.

Abdris Younus left the village of Shwe Prasaw in Myanmar's Rhakine State in 2011, leaving behind his first wife, Lailah, and nine kids.  "Lailah was crying but said, 'If you’re here, they will always give us trouble.  There is no choice.'  

Abdris joined around 100 people on a small boat bound for Malaysia. The engine died partway into the journey and for days, they drifted along. There was minimal food to begin with let alone for a delayed journey.  10-15 people on the boat died while they were drifting.  Abdris remembers throwing bodies overboard to give the survivors room.  One day, they spotted a small fishing boat nearby.  Out of desperation, people began jumping overboard and swimming for the boat.  The fishermen alerted the Sri Lankan government, which sent a vessel with food, clothes and medicine, and brought the refugees to detainment camps.

 Kulsuma Begun Mdkorim and her two daughters, Lala and Nurkido, fled Myanmar in 2012 after reports that a violent Burmese military group was approaching her village.  She was pregnant with her third child, a boy to later be named Kawnaig.  They took a small fishing boat to Bangladesh, which cost 700,000 kyat (or approximately $522).  Her sister, who was already in Bangladesh, paid for the journey.  The plan was to travel to Malaysia to join her brothers.  Her husband, who had stayed in Myanmar, was to meet her there.

Kulsuma Begun Mdkorim and her two daughters, Lala and Nurkido, fled Myanmar in 2012 after reports that a violent Burmese military group was approaching her village.  She was pregnant with her third child, a boy to later be named Kawnaig.  They took a small fishing boat to Bangladesh, which cost 700,000 kyat (or approximately $522).  Her sister, who was already in Bangladesh, paid for the journey.  The plan was to travel to Malaysia to join her brothers.  Her husband, who had stayed in Myanmar, was to meet her there.

 From Bangladesh, Kulsama and her children travelled to Thailand, which took 15 days.  The boats were overcrowded - too crowded to sleep or sit.  Many people didn’t have food or water. "If you asked for anything, they beat you," she said.  As a woman with children, she was spared this fate, but it erupted all around her.  She worried about the safety of her kids. “Allah is great and gave me energy for my kids.”

From Bangladesh, Kulsama and her children travelled to Thailand, which took 15 days.  The boats were overcrowded - too crowded to sleep or sit.  Many people didn’t have food or water. "If you asked for anything, they beat you," she said.  As a woman with children, she was spared this fate, but it erupted all around her.  She worried about the safety of her kids. “Allah is great and gave me energy for my kids.”

 Kulsama snuggles with Kawnaig.  Upon arriving to Thailand, pregnant Kulsama and her children spent two days hiding in the jungle while her smugglers tried to extort more money from her brothers, who were expecting her in Malaysia.  The Thai police picked them up on the second day and brought them to a detainment camp where they would spend the next year and a half.  When she managed to call her village, she was informed that her husband had gone missing along with several other men.  All are presumed dead.

Kulsama snuggles with Kawnaig.  Upon arriving to Thailand, pregnant Kulsama and her children spent two days hiding in the jungle while her smugglers tried to extort more money from her brothers, who were expecting her in Malaysia.  The Thai police picked them up on the second day and brought them to a detainment camp where they would spend the next year and a half.  When she managed to call her village, she was informed that her husband had gone missing along with several other men.  All are presumed dead.

 Lala Begun, 7 years old, was only three years old when she left Myanmar with her pregnant mom and younger sister.  Usually talkative, she's turns quiet at mention of the boat ride that brought them to Thailand and then detainment camp.  She remembers there were other kids.  She remembers her mother was sad, so she tried to make her happy by caring for her younger sister.  

Lala Begun, 7 years old, was only three years old when she left Myanmar with her pregnant mom and younger sister.  Usually talkative, she's turns quiet at mention of the boat ride that brought them to Thailand and then detainment camp.  She remembers there were other kids.  She remembers her mother was sad, so she tried to make her happy by caring for her younger sister.  

 Abdris checks his phone while his wife, Kulsama, makes dinner.  His children are spread across Southeast Asia, some having left Myanmar, some still trying to leave.  Upon arriving to Chicago, one of his children told Abdris that Lailah had passed away.  Soon after, he was introduced to Kulsama, also a widow and with three kids, by members of the local Rohingya community.  Kulsama recalls the courtship as pragmatic, with Abdris saying, “I don’t have a wife and you don’t have a husband.  We should be married."  She admitted that she liked him, which made the offer more appealing.

Abdris checks his phone while his wife, Kulsama, makes dinner.  His children are spread across Southeast Asia, some having left Myanmar, some still trying to leave.  Upon arriving to Chicago, one of his children told Abdris that Lailah had passed away.  Soon after, he was introduced to Kulsama, also a widow and with three kids, by members of the local Rohingya community.  Kulsama recalls the courtship as pragmatic, with Abdris saying, “I don’t have a wife and you don’t have a husband.  We should be married."  She admitted that she liked him, which made the offer more appealing.

 Abdul Shakur Abul Hussein left Myanmar in 1984, nearly 20 years before his wife, Almas, who joined him in 2004.  He went to Malaysia in search of better economic opportunity.  As a farmer in the Rhakine state, his income and livestock were often sized by the government.  To Abdul, fleeing was the only viable choice.  However, he found it difficult to work in Malaysia as the fear of deportation loomed constantly.

Abdul Shakur Abul Hussein left Myanmar in 1984, nearly 20 years before his wife, Almas, who joined him in 2004.  He went to Malaysia in search of better economic opportunity.  As a farmer in the Rhakine state, his income and livestock were often sized by the government.  To Abdul, fleeing was the only viable choice.  However, he found it difficult to work in Malaysia as the fear of deportation loomed constantly.

 Abdul sits with his son, Yasseif, who is 12 years old.  Yasseif was born in Malaysia and has never had a formal education.  As a result, he is significantly behind.  Abdul wants his son to maintain his identity.   “I always remind my son, who we are, where we come from.  We have to keep telling the history of Burma.  I tell him every day: Don’t forget your grandmother, your relatives who are still there.  I try my best.”

Abdul sits with his son, Yasseif, who is 12 years old.  Yasseif was born in Malaysia and has never had a formal education.  As a result, he is significantly behind.  Abdul wants his son to maintain his identity.   “I always remind my son, who we are, where we come from.  We have to keep telling the history of Burma.  I tell him every day: Don’t forget your grandmother, your relatives who are still there.  I try my best.”